Top-level negotiators agreed Wednesday on a landmark pact that will bring Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization into close cooperation for the first time while making it easier for NATO to expand into Central Europe.
The long-awaited agreement, which would create a permanent Russia-NATO advisory council, declares the Atlantic alliance’s intention not to base nuclear weapons or “substantial” combat forces in countries that until recently were under Moscow’s control.
The accord was praised by Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, who said it will relieve Russia’s “anxiety” over the issue of NATO enlargement and give way to a “calm attitude.”
In Washington, President Clinton also applauded the agreement, saying, “Today in Moscow, we have taken a historic step closer to a peaceful, undivided, democratic Europe for the first time in history.”
But only hours after NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana and Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov had struck the accord, Yeltsin and Clinton began expressing conflicting views on just how much authority it would grant Russia.
The pact will be submitted to NATO’s member countries for approval, then probably signed May 27 in Paris at a 17-nation summit which would include Clinton and Yeltsin. In July, NATO is expected to invite at least three countries from the former Soviet bloc to join: Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
Russia has proved powerless to block the expansion of the alliance to its western border but had sought concessions that would give the appearance, at least, that Russia is still a force to be reckoned with.
Western officials said the Solana-Primakov pact was the result of “give” on both sides. “Clearly this would have to be a balanced agreement or it wouldn’t work,” one official said.
But with little bargaining power, Russia appears to have given a lot more than it got.
Russia gained only an advisory role and no direct power over NATO decisions, according to NATO officials. It also did not win the ironclad guarantees it sought that combat troops and nuclear arms would not be based in former Soviet bloc nations at all.
Nevertheless, in a national television interview Wednesday evening, Yeltsin attempted to put the best face on the agreement, contending it would give Russia veto power over NATO actions.
“The fact that the document is obligatory is clear,” he asserted. “Should Russia be against any decision, the decision will not pass. This is critically important.”
Yeltsin also said that if the accord is ratified in Paris, NATO will be restricted in the forces and weaponry it can move into the new member countries. “This will be strictly observed, and they (armed forces) will not be deployed,” he said. “Nuclear arms will not be deployed (and) the infrastructure remaining from the Warsaw Pact will not be used.”
Asked about the Russian president’s interpretation of the agreement, Clinton said NATO will have the flexibility it needs to deploy troops and equipment and use existing installations in the new member countries.
“Russia will work closely with NATO, but not within giving Russia a voice in, but not a veto over, NATO’s business,” Clinton said.
At NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, officials played down the conflicting views of the accord. “President Yeltsin has to sell the agreement to his people,” one NATO officials said. “We respect that.”
The official also suggested that Yeltsin’s remarks apply not to NATO but to the joint advisory council, where Russia will have a veto but will be unable to overrule the decisions of NATO itself.
The pact, officially to be called the “Founding Act,” would establish the Joint NATO-Russia Council, which would meet at least once a month, and at least twice a year at the foreign ministers’ level, NATO officials said.
Russia would participate in setting the council’s agenda, and also could establish its own military and diplomatic mission at the NATO compound in Brussels. In addition, Russian officers could be sent to NATO’s military command in Europe to work as liaison officers.
Further, NATO declares its intention:
Not to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of former Soviet bloc nations that join NATO, and not to use or build nuclear weapons storage facilities in those countries.
Not to deploy combat - forces in the new member countries “in substantial numbers.” The number of combat troops in these countries now is not regarded as “substantial.”
To amend the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, currently being renegotiated by its 30 signatories in Vienna, Austria, to make further cuts in the number of tanks and other weapons on the continent.
To re-examine NATO military doctrine and strategy.
“These are statements of intent,” one NATO official said. “They are not legal obligations.”
In exchange for NATO’s commitments, Russia agreed not to object if NATO:
Constructs common air defenses with its new members or uses existing military infrastructure in those nations.
Stages joint military exercises with its new members.
Uses NATO forces to reinforce those countries in the event of a military threat.
Clinton said Russia agreed to the pact because it finally recognized that NATO has a new peacekeeping mission in Europe that does not threaten Russia.